Monday, February 16, 2009

Of Jewish Generals and Kings

War is hell! It brings out the worst in people, and it must do so if the individual is going to survive, withstand, conquer and control. It is the animal instinct which man curbs for most of his day which must be unleashed in order to succeed. For this reason there are different rules in wartime, morality seems to take a backseat and an uneasiness engulfs one's consciousness. Yes, there are no atheists in the foxholes but other than that split second, much of the battlefront experience ignores Godliness and spirituality. It is not for nought that the Torah presents a most difficult commandment called the beautiful captive.
There is no individual more important than the general or king at times of war. This is provided that the king or general is on the front lines leading the troops towards the enemy. If a flicker of fear is found on his face the soldiers sense it, the battle is already lost. If he inspires them moments before the attack, if he riles up the troops and draws out those animalistic instincts and urges, the soldiers become a fighting force like no other.
But what does he say? How does he inspire that confidence? Passion?
King David provides an answer in psalm 20.
יענך ה' ביום צרה--God will answer your call on this day of distress
The first verse sets the stage for an entire psalm devoted to rallying the troops before the ensuing battle. The priest or prophet stands up at the gates of Jerusalem, faces the king and the army with the throngs of civilians looking on and exclaims: "God will answer your call on this day of distress". Implicit in this incipient remark is the understanding as to what type of king or general is standing before them--this warrior invokes God as his salvation. This king has prayed on behalf of himself, his army and his nation for salvation--to him, God will reply. The first five verses reinforce this motif. He will send, He will support, He will remember, provide, fulfill...
And who is this king? One who not only prays but recognizes the holy of holies and Jerusalem as the manifestation of God's presence and has offered meal and burnt offerings before the high priest. Indeed to this personality there is confidence that God will "fulfill his heart's desire". The nation rejoice at seeing a true leader who can inspire, enlighten and lead them into battle. This king represents God stronger than any prophet or priest who stays back at the camp while the army goes to war.
The Jewish soldier does not eschew his Godliness at times of distress; on the contrary, he includes God in his prayers, on the battlefield and in the villages. He cares for the fruit trees and certainly for the civilians who are casualties of the war. He knows that some like to count the tanks, others the artillery, but our secret lies in the mentioning of the name of God our Lord.
In this context the psalm ends on a beautifully ambiguous note: "the king will answer us on the day we call out to him". To which king does the psalmist refer? To the human one who leads them onto the battlefield, or to the One King who brings ultimate salvation from above? The answer I think is a blending of the two so that the Jewish king truly rises and raises his people to Godly proportions even on the most trying days of distress.